Author Sharon Dilworth has lived in Pittsburgh for 25 years. She moved here to teach at Carnegie Mellon University, met her eventual husband and raised a family. But there’s one code she said it took her most of that quarter-century to crack: the one that Pittsburghers use when discussing local neighborhoods.
Dilworth’s understanding of Pittsburgh’s neighborhood code is on display in two sides, three rivers, her new collection of short fiction. The nine stories range across the city and region, following characters including the owner of a rundown bookstore in Shadyside, a young man buying up old accordions in isolated Mon Valley towns, and a youthful private detective in Lawrenceville.
Dilworth, who’s also written two novels and two previous short-story collections, said she recently realized there’s a common denominator in her work.
“I write about people who are upset because other people aren't acting the way that they want them to act,” she said.
An example is her story “The Cousin in the Backyard,” in which a woman who idolizes iconic anarchist Emma Goldman is stuck in a dysfunctional family, and in a society that would pave over an historic site like U.S. Steel’s Homestead Works – where the infamous Homestead Strike of 1892 took place – in favor of a giant retail development like The Waterfront.
As the story’s unnamed narrator puts it: “To build it, they had to tear down the Homestead Steel Mill, and in doing so leveled Pittsburgh's greatest asset, its history. I'm often accused of having too many opinions and too much attitude but I disagree. Rage is only one emotion. Listen to how I see things.”
Dilworth describes the narrator further: “She wants everyone to be a revolutionary, she wants everyone to be an anarchist. She thinks everyone should be outraged at the Target being built. And they’re not. In fact, some of them are saying it should be an even bigger Target, and she’s mortified.”
Dilworth laughs: There’s a lot of comedy in these characters who live by an unbending code.
The author grew up in Detroit and now heads the creative-writing program. Even after all this time here, she’s still struck by Pittsburghers’ strong identification with their neighborhoods.
“People here are very proud of their neighborhoods and they’re very pumped up about where they’re from neighborhoodwise,” she said. “And I think that’s one of the reasons I set the stories in different neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.”
The centerpiece of the collection is “The Chubby Boy,” about the relationship between a middle-class woman and a troubled, working-class kid. The story was inspired by some talk among locals.
“They said, ‘Oh, you know him, he's from Greenfield.’ And to me that was no code. I didn't know what that meant. He was just from a neighborhood. But to them it meant something,” she said. “It had this huge attitude and I just loved that. It took me a long time to learn the codes of Pittsburgh which is why I didn't write about Pittsburgh for a long time.”
two sides, three rivers is published by locally based Bridge & Tunnel Books. A book-launch is set for Friday at Abandoned Pittsburgh, a photography gallery in Homestead.